Singapore’s maverick of design: Chris Lee of Asylum


“I believe there’s a thin line between madness and genius,” says Chris Lee, founder and creative director of the aptly named, Singapore-based multidisciplinary design firm Asylum. “We want to walk that line.”

Indeed, Lee has been branded a maverick for deploying a comedic irreverence alongside the elegance and luxury that dwell within his body of work. (His headshot on his company website, for example, is a picture of George Clooney). At Frolick, a frozen yogurt shop in Singapore that the firm designed in 2008, the walls and serving cups feature neon-hued colors and cheeky slogans like “Explicit Toppings” and “Size does matter.” His 2008 design for Singapore’s Chocolate Research Facility looked as though melted chocolate was oozing down the walls. 

As may be apparent from this early work, Asylum, at its inception, was a purely graphic design and branding studio. “I think design should be fluid in terms of discipline, informed by art, music, film, and everything around us,” says Lee, who later added architecture and spatial design to its portfolio and cites fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, and architects Herzog & de Meuron as major influences.

“We try to avoid what is popular or trendy. What is important to us are things like audience, context, narrative, and experience.”
– Chris Lee of Asylum

In 2015, he designed the environment for Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen’s “The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers,” a five-and-a-half-hour performance piece that debuted at the Palais de Tokyo and combined elements of fashion with theater, cinema, and karaoke. Lee transformed the exhibition space into an interactive hybrid stage and catwalk with faces and bodies projected onto multifaceted, stand-alone screens.

The bulk of Asylum’s work, however, is retail and hospitality projects that emote a grand opulence, with repeat clients including Michelin-starred restaurant Imperial Treasure and beauty and fragrance brand Escentials. The firm has done three separate Fred Perry locations, and as a commission to celebrate the brand’s 60th anniversary, even decorated its iconic tipped collar polo tee with neon yellow pom-poms to honor its tennis heritage. “Clients come to us when they seek change and want a fresh pair of eyes,” says Lee. “They all expect us to surprise them, and that is both a blessing and a curse. But we pride ourselves as designers on always pushing boundaries in every project that we undertake.”

This is more than evident at the firm’s four Johnnie Walker Houses (pictured above), members-only spaces devoted to the history, discussion, and consumption of whiskey. Each location is based on the visual identity of the brand, and yet is distinct from the other three. In Shanghai, the main event is the undulating ceiling covered in rows of whiskey glasses, which sets the tone for the rich, bronze-colored warmth of its bars and tasting rooms. In Seoul, the palette is considerably lighter, with bars backlit by white lights and an extravagant sculpture inspired by the distillation process of whiskey-making in the center of a white spiral staircase illuminated by the skylight above.


The one consistent theme through Asylum’s wide range of clientele seems to be the attention the firm pays to its ceilings, often treating them as sculpture. In the airy, casual Los Angeles eatery Tatsu Ramen, the blond wood ceiling is faceted like the folds of an origami structure. At The Warehouse Hotel in Singapore (pictured above), Asylum custom-built a light fixture of wheels and pulleys that hang down from the exposed steel trusses of the lobby, an industrial reference to the 1895 building’s past life as a warehouse.

The Warehouse creates a fresh perspective on the term “industrial,” characterized by a selection of raw textures balanced with modern, luxurious finishes. Its brown leather sofas and recessed light fixtures convey a sense of warmth, and the restaurant, Pó (short for popo, the Mandarin word for grandmother), was designed to evoke the comforts of home—only elevated. Throughout the hotel are recurring touches of wood, stone, and bronze. “What I like about such materials is that they take on more character and become even more beautiful with time,” says Lee. “We try to avoid what is popular or trendy. What is important to us are things like audience, context, narrative, and experience. These points allow us to create spaces that are original and relevant.”


The preceding article by Janelle Zara was excerpted from the “Influencers List,” honoring five visionary architects and designers who are changing the face of contemporary hospitality, in the Design Hotels™ Book 2018. Available now for pre-order, the book features 295 handpicked properties over 500-plus illustrated pages, with behind-the-scenes stories of the artists, designers, architects, and hoteliers who brought them to life. Click here for more information or to buy your copy.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018